Aug 30th 2018
LAST year Saudi Arabia’s young and powerful
crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, pulverised Awamiyah, a rebellious Shia town
near the eastern coast. Throughout the summer Saudi forces shelled its
400-year-old neighbourhoods and erected siege walls to trap some 200 gunmen.
But in February, when the rebels stopped shooting, he sent in his engineers,
diggers and cranes to clear up the damage. Six months on, new roads, shopping
centres and a small hospital are rising from the ruins of the levelled town. A
new highway, stretching across Eastern Province, runs past Awamiyah, which had
been largely isolated. By next March the $64m facelift will be complete.
Prince Muhammad hopes the reconstruction
will send multiple messages. In exchange for absolute loyalty, he is offering
to treat his 2m-3m Shia subjects much like his 18m Sunnis. He has curbed the
religious police, who enforced Sunni supremacy and derided Shias as Kuffar
(infidels). He has also appointed Saudi Arabia’s first Shia cabinet minister
(albeit without a portfolio). The board of Neom, a planned $500bn high-tech
city, has a Shia member, as does the national football team. Anti-Shia vitriol
has been removed from school textbooks and television networks. “We’re going to
be an integral part of the kingdom as full citizens for the first time,” says a
well-connected Shia businessman. He predicts that Riyadh, the capital, will
have its first Shia mosque within three years.
Awamiyah’s reconstruction is also meant to
entice Shia Arabs in the region. “We can rebuild impoverished southern Iraq too,”
says a Saudi official, referring to the Shia portion of the country. Previous
Saudi rulers backed Iraq’s Sunni minority, but Prince Muhammad has courted its
Shia hoping to lure them away from Iran’s ayatollahs. He has hosted Shia
clerics from Iraq; plans to send planes full of Shia pilgrims to the country’s
holy cities, and dangle billions in investment to revive industry in the south.
While Iran pulls at the Shias’ religious sinews, Saudi Arabia appeals to their
sense of Arab nationalism—and suspicion of Persians. Shiism flourished in the
Arab world a thousand years before Iran, says a Saudi prince involved in the
effort. (Iran only converted to Shiism under the Safavids in the 16th century.)
“We used to use Islam to resist nationalism,” he says. “Now we do the reverse.”
Well-to-do Shias praise Prince Muhammad for
ridding Awamiyah of a slum infested by gun-toting criminals, drug-dealers and a
Shia cult, called the Shirazis, which appealed to landless peasants in Eastern
Province. Some Shirazis took up arms and called for the death of the Al Sauds
after their rabble-rousing preacher, Nimr al-Nimr, was executed in 2016.
But Awamiyah’s redevelopment also has
critics. Bulldozers have carved thoroughfares through a honeycomb of ancient
alleyways, used as hiding places by the Shirazis. The old souk has been
demolished, replaced by shops in an open plaza. Palm groves have been levelled.
Entering Awamiyah now feels like entering Palestinian towns in the
Israeli-occupied West Bank. Residents and visitors must pass through multiple
checkpoints cut into the siege walls. Armoured cars patrol the town. “The price
of integration is a loss of identity,” says a man living nearby.
Others don’t think the position of Saudi
Shias has improved much under Prince Muhammad. There are still no Shia members
of the top religious authority. No Shia judges sit on national courts. Nor are
there Shia police officers or ambassadors. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s war on
Yemen’s Houthis, a group of Shia rebels, stirs sectarian tensions.
The previous Saudi king, Abdullah, launched
a dialogue with Shia leaders in the kingdom. But Prince Muhammad is
uncompromising. All of his changes have come by decree. He refuses to talk to
Awamiyah’s rebels, insisting they turn themselves in. In August the royal
prosecutor called for the first time for a Saudi woman to be sentenced to death
for the crime of protesting. She is Shia. That disloyalty will be harshly
punished is another message the crown prince hopes to send, to Sunnis and Shias